Ships of the desert
At dawn, the situation looked desperate. Wathara lay on her side only 10 metres from the low tide mark, slamming on the rocks, shuddering from keel to masthead with surf breaking over her. We were finished. Even if she survived until the next high tide there was no way to get her off without a tug, of which the nearest was in Aden – 600 miles away.
Three vehicles drove down to the beach that morning and half a dozen Dandar men stared at the pitiful sight. I waded ashore and glumly told them the obvious.
“The boat is finished. She has dragged three anchors during the night.”
One of the men, the foreman of the road gang, rubbed his chin and said, “I tink ve might do sometink.”
An hour later, two huge earth-moving trucks came to join the other. The crews went in to action, running out wires from winches on the trucks to nylon strops they rigged around Wathara’s hull. They wedged baulks of timber under the boat and the trucks took the strain. Slowly, inch by inch, she edged towards the shore. For three hours in drizzling rain and cold wind they coaxed her up the bank until she lay above the level of high tide.
We spent 10 days lying there on the edge of the desert with the boat heeled over at 30 degrees. The day after we dragged her ashore the rain stopped, the wind turned and the sea flattened – conditions that would have enabled us to get her off the day before. The sky became a brilliant blue with a haze over the mountains that accentuated their rugged beauty. Bucko had a new playground chasing yellow crabs until one of them bit him on the nose and he gave that away. Camels wandered past and Bucko tried his hand at herding them like a sheep dog but they either ignored him or gazed upon him with contempt.
Living at an angle of 30 degrees was interesting. Robin was deeply depressed by these events, perhaps blaming herself. We could only sleep on the downhill side of the bunk or else on the cabin sole and took turns in having Bucko for a bed warmer, at which he was highly inefficient. The Dandar crew would run us into the camp each day for a shower and a meal in the canteen. Sigfus offered accommodation but also warned of thieves if we left the boat unattended so we decided against. We came away loaded up with cheese and salami, eggs, milk and apologies that the bread had not yet been baked. Later that day Lars and his wife Greta arrived at the boat with the bread and jokes about how we needed one leg longer than the other.
News had obviously travelled and the locals came to stare. One introduced himself in good English as the manager of the future fish-processing plant in Nishtun. He was concerned that we had not reported to police or Customs to have our papers regulised, as he called it. He went away and returned an hour or so later with the local policeman who was also the Customs officer, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, here we go.’
With a sinking feeling we set out in his Toyota for the 50 kilometre drive to Al Ghaida, the capital of that governate of South Yemen. The road was a rocky track through the desert and we jolted and bumped at dangerous speed all the way, passing stray camels, chardor-clad women herding goats and houses built of cement bricks where people squatted in the shade. The fish plant manager, named Naji, had come along as interpreter. He complained of a headache after a night’s drinking with the Danes.
We were shown into a dim, cool room where two officials in while robes sat at opposite ends of a huge T-shaped table. A scribe took down our details that we dictated to Naji. Someone brought cold cans of Pepsi. Passports were examined, stores lists scrutinised and we were quizzed on our reason for arriving in South Yemen without a visa.
Normally I would have claimed Force Majeure but I had a vague idea that one of its interpretations is ‘Act of God,’ and, being a rabid atheist, I did not want to get into a theological discussion with a Muslim. I attempted to explain that because of the bad weather I could not navigate by the Sun or the stars. Naji translated this and also the official’s response, which was, ‘Then you are here by the will of God?”
Our passports were stamped and we were free to go. Naji translated the last comment by one of the officials: “Are you hungry?”
“Hungry? Well, yes actually.”
A door opened leading into a kind of cafeteria where we were treated to a meal of what may have been goat soup, bread and very sweet tea. It is the first and only time I have been treated to a free lunch by a customs officer, although in a later adventure I admit to being kissed by one.